When someone you don’t know enters a space that you consider to be yours—say, this room—what do you do to help them feel welcome? Shake their hand, smile, listen to them, say something like, “I am happy to meet you.” Maybe a little small talk or tell a joke. “What do you call a bee that can’t make up its mind? A Maybe” Do you then move on, one and done? Or do you think of that first contact as a potential building block in a relationship that might yet be built?
In the 1980s and 90s, the word “welcoming” became code-speak for welcoming lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. The Unitarian Universalist Association launched a Welcoming Congregation Program to help Unitarian Universalists learn how to undo homophobia—and later, transphobia (prejudice against transgender people)—in ourselves, our congregations, and our communities. This congregation became a Welcoming Congregation about 20 years ago. It may interest you to know that currently, Unitarian Universalist congregations are encouraged to re-certify every year. Why? Knowing how to be welcoming is not static thing. Our culture changes and we change. Earning a Welcoming Congregation designation doesn’t mean we’ve checked off a particular item on a list and we’re done with that. It’s not a badge; it’s a way of being, a call to us to actively engage in the issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community because we know what affects one of us affects all of us.
As a young psychotherapist back in the 1990’s, I had worked to educate myself about the issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community. Much like now, I was not afraid to ask what others might consider to be dumb questions of my LGBTQ+ clients. I wanted to be a more effective therapist for them. I realized I couldn’t effectively help them if I didn’t understand their world view, their pain and what caused their pain, and their daily struggles. I want to share one incident that shocked me into a better understanding of what an LGBTQ+ person faces every day. At the time, I was working in a good-sized clinic of psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers in Texas. I was on the Board of Directors of this organization. We decided to hire a marketing person. He was great at his job and everyone loved him. One day he came into my office to talk about some marketing proposal and it just slipped out that he had a male significant other. He looked at me, very afraid. He begged me not to tell anyone. I was surprised by his behavior. I had suspected he was gay and it was no big deal to me. But he was genuinely afraid he would be fired if it got out. I said no one here would fire you for being gay. But he was convinced that the co-chairs of the Board were either homophobic or just plain prejudiced against gay people. He shared that during his time working at the clinic, he had overheard them making negative comments about gay people and even once overheard them make a disparaging joke about a lesbian client in their care. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I knew my colleagues. I did keep his secret. And I was much more aware of what he and other LGBTQ+ people endure as they move through the world. This happened 30 years ago. And this happens today.
I tell you all this because it is difficult to know how to appropriately welcome someone who has been afraid of being completely and openly themselves without fear of consequences, consequences that include being emotionally or physically hurt by someone else. Now you may think, this is a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we know about all this already. And we are already welcoming. However, learning to be welcoming is complex, not a one and done thing. There is always more to learn.
Here are two realities that we need to embrace to be welcoming, to help others feel safe, and to help them feel that there is a place for them in our lives and in this congregation. One: It is a reality that LGBTQ+ people still experience lots of prejudice and it is worse today in some places than it was back in the late twentieth century; LGBTQ+ people have real fears now about how they will be treated by others; and many, if not most, LGBTQ+ people have been hurt by others because of how they identify or who they love. How many of you are aware of botched gender affirming surgeries due to the reluctance of many physicians to perform the surgery? I know we have all heard in the media about the struggles of many youth who want to use the bathroom of their gender identity. But have you heard of transgender persons facing barriers in having US Passports reflect their gender identity? And many LGBTQ+ are still having difficulty adopting children. And LGBTQ+ are being murdered for just being themselves. So when an LGBTQ+ person enters our lives or enters this congregation, they will wonder if they are safe, not just welcomed. They’ll never wonder about belonging if they believe they are unsafe—whether it’s a belittling joke they might hear or a cutting remark. They might feel like Guiji Guiji among us ducks.
(See Story https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIQhxayNX1o) Experiences that they have had in the world might make them question if they can belong in any relationship or any group. And when you are bruised and lonely, you are, so easily hurt.And Two: It is a reality that each of us has our own personal prejudices, value judgements, ignorances, and ill-informed beliefs, many of which lie deep within that dark place inside us that we are completely unaware of. All of us. Me, too. These prejudices, values, ignorances, and beliefs can come out in ways we might not be able to predict, ways we certainly wouldn’t want, ways that can hurt someone we know or care about.
I am called as a Unitarian Universalist to consider the worth and dignity of all people, and particularly people that I think or feel are different than me; me a white heterosexual cis gender male. Cis is means that my birth sex is how I identify, and for me, that is male. I will be honest with you sometimes I have found it challenging to live our First Principle—to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to treat each person as important. I won’t go into detail of what my upbringing was as a white boy in a white neighborhood in Houston, Texas. I’m pretty sure you can figure it out. Just know I had a lot of personal work to do about prejudice as a young adult.
I never met an out gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or gender queer person until I was in college. I grew up in a Catholic home, went to a Catholic church, and attended a Catholic High School. The message I had growing up was that being gay was morally wrong, and the lessons we learn as children run so deeply within us. Prejudices, value judgements, and mis-information.
In Freshman year of college I met an out gay man. He was a hemophiliac and most of the time he was restricted to a wheel chair. His name was Gus. He presented as fun and self-effacing. And if he took offense at my clumsy reactions to his being gay when I was around him, he was kind enough not to show it. We developed an easy friendship. I am grateful that he was in my life. But many of my prejudices and value judgements continued to percolate under the surface even after we became friends because I didn’t feel comfortable enough to talk about my issues with my gay friend. I didn’t want to risk our friendship.I learned to be more authentic with my LGBTQ+ friends, but this has been a process, an awkward, always vulnerable process. I don’t’ know about you, but a lot of times when I am learning things I make mistakes. And mistakes with people can hurt. And I have come to learn that is okay to not know everything about the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community or any LGBTQ+ person, and I have forgiven myself countless times for my frequent awkwardness. Our Unitarian Universalist Principles call me to listen to those I do not understand and to make every effort to show them respect. Just like me, all of us who make the effort to be welcoming are going to make mistakes. We may stumble over using chosen pronouns and we may never fully understand what is like to be live life being subjected to unrelenting prejudice. I don’t think LGBTQ+ folks expect us to be perfect at understanding everything. But they do expect us to try. Not try to be perfect; try to do better. They are asking us to listen to them and to show them the respect they ask for. The respect we say we as a congregation affirm and promote. It is our intention and sincere effort that are important. I can be awkward and make mistakes all day long while still holding positive loving intention in my heart and asking for forgiveness when needed. And that’s a crucial part of this—asking forgiveness when needed. Not when I think it’s needed, but when they person I’ve hurt tells me I need to ask forgiveness. I believe all of us who are working on any social justice initiative have realized that this is part of the process of developing real relationship, whether we are working with an African American community, an Islamic community, an immigrant community, or the prison community. We ask them, as individuals, how we can be supportive, how we can show them respect, what they want us to know about them. Only after they tell us what they need can we work to help them as they struggle for equity and justice.
I mentioned that many in the LGBTQ+ community are experiencing more oppression than they have in many years. This is true of many marginalized communities. We have heard about hijabs being ripped off, Nazi symbols spray- painted on buildings, bomb threats to Jewish synagogues and community centers, and abusive and threatening language being used against many marginalized groups. A fewyears ago, at a rally at the Naperville Islamic Center held by Representative Bill Foster regarding the travel ban, I heard Samia Abdul-Qadir, a 17-year-old junior at Naperville North High School, talk about how after the Presidential election some of her friends, people she had invited over to her house to do homework, people she was on the fencing team with, tell her she "looked like a terrorist" because she was wearing a hijab. She said "It pierced my heart.” I believe that many people who might have kept these abusive thoughts to themselves now feel empowered to speak them. As Unitarian Universalists, what are we going to do about that? That’s not a hypothetical question—I really mean what are we going to do about that?
Well, one thing we can do is provide a safe place for anyone who needs it. A place where someone feeling oppressed can feel welcomed and safe, accepted and loved just as they are, a place where they can feel they belong. This is something we, Unitarian Universalists, have always aspired to do. This church has worked through its many years of existence to be truly welcoming to anyone who enters these doors and this is even more important today. New people are joining us, and sometimes being radically welcoming might be challenging. Whether we start wearing our pronouns and asking others what pronouns they prefer or choosing to be a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants or opening our facility to groups like Planned Parenthood or Friends Who March or Moms Demand Action, I believe we are up to this challenge. Some of these actions will have risks associated with them. From embarrassing mistakes to legal challenges during actions of witness—something many Unitarian Universalist congregations have experienced. We will not be bullied, and we will not stand silently by when others are being hurt, experiencing prejudice, or living in fear. That is not who we are.In the back of the sanctuary are flyers that show you how you can create a safe environment when you see prejudice in action. The handout presents how to handle a situation with Islamaphobia (see flyer at https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/18/537899187/boston-launches-anti-islamophobia-poster-campaign, but the process can be used in any situation you want to support someone who is experiencing prejudice. I invite you to take one home with you. One person can make a difference. You can make a difference, because that is who we are.
Pierre Teilhard De Chardin (tey yard de char don) wrote: “We are one, after all, you and I; together we suffer, together we exist, and forever will recreate each other.” We seek to be in relationship, true authentic relationship, with all who come into these doors, with all who come into our lives, for we know that we are all one, together we suffer, together we exist and together by being in relationship with one another, we will recreate each other.